Opinions on faith and life

Translation and Interpretation

2010-07-07

Beginning at this link is a series of articles purporting to analyze “the Bible Versions Debate”. Since many believe as the author does that the bulk of “modern” translations are faulty or deliberately misleading, I thought it worthwhile to examine this issue in detail. But please note that this issue, like others I’ve mentioned before, is not going to be solved to anyone’s satisfaction with a few blog posts. And at this time I’m not sure whether I’ll go on to the succeeding parts.

Part One

Introduction – The author, Dusty Peterson, intends to focus on which English translations are best, not to compare with other languages or debate the claim of the Bible being the Word of God. Reliability of the text is paramount since we base our faith upon its teachings. So Peterson sees the core of this study as condensed onto two areas: determining the original readings, and how to translate them.

Opening Comments – Peterson begins with the claim that though this topic requires “a lot of knowledge”, little such knowledge is required for the first issue to be addressed: whether we should use formal equivalence or “word for word”, or dynamic equivalence or “thought for thought”, which Peterson calls “interpretation”. Yet there is always interpretation involved, even in assembling dictionaries. So this first issue is really a false dilemma; it is not between interpretation and non-interpretation since the latter is impossible.

Peterson defines dynamic equiv. as “an attempt to bridge the cultural divide between the ancient Middle-East and modern-day man.” But this is not true exclusively between ancient and modern cultures, but between any cultures. It is literally impossible to translate from one modern language into another without any interpretation or rephrasing of figures of speech. In an example referenced here (more discussion here), a German cartoon has robots looking at a crashed car, and one of them says (in German of course) “I can’t see oil!”. It makes no sense as a word-for-word English translation. But if we recognize the idiom, we translate it as “I can’t stand the sight of oil!” and relate it to “I can’t stand the sight of blood!”. Then we get the joke.

Clearly, then, there is a balance between the two extremes that we need to find if we are to translate correctly, and for the Bible, this is of the utmost importance. So we need first of all to ditch the false dilemma and look for that elusive balance point, which of course does require “knowledge”, and of many things. If the series of articles only intends to play one extreme against the other, the question about which English translation to use will never be fully answered.

Translation and Interpretation– Peterson shows bias against the dynamic method by saying “Let’s start by looking at some apparent difficulties associated with writing an extreme dynamic equivalence translation (i.e. a paraphrase) and then calling the result ’Scripture’.” That is, if anyone uses more interpretation than he deems fit, the translation cannot be called ’scripture’ at all. He defines a paraphrase as somehow not “God’s specific words”, but we will see that the formal method would not qualify either.

Peterson then emphasizes “the actual words” at length, apparently ignoring the fact that we do not have “the actual words” at all, but only copies of the original writings. We are dealing here with probability, not certainty, and relying upon the science of textual criticism to increase the probability that we have an accurate copy. Peterson does not disagree, but my point is this: if the “actual words” are so very critical, we would have expected the originals to be divinely preserved. That God has not seen fit to preserve them takes a lot of the foundation out from under the claim that dynamic equiv. is somehow not a valid translation method, or at least not one that can be called ’scripture’.

Another issue, which I’m sure Peterson will get to eventually, is that the Masoretic text of the OT is not the original Hebrew at all. No Hebrew text before the first century has survived; the oldest manuscripts are in other languages. I’ve gone into more detail on this in my earlier “Pharisee” articles (search on that word) and so will not repeat it here.

Peterson’s discussion on “the words” seems to ignore figures of speech, esp. the equivalent of “take my word for it”. When God says “listen to my words”, he is saying “listen to me”, not “learn ancient Hebrew so you can memorize the syllables”. And in saying “The word ’translate’ has a specific definition. It means ’to turn from one language to another’, not ’from one culture to another’ or ’from one era to another’”, he shows lack of understanding of the translation process. It is never done in a cultural or historical vacuum, as the German joke I mentioned illustrates. If translation could be reduced to a mechanical conversion from one dictionary to another, we’d all be able to read ancient Greek or Hebrew without the need for any education at all, yet clearly this is not the case in reality. He also commits the etymological fallacy in restricting the word “translation” to its constituent parts.

An Argument Used for Paraphrases – Peterson says “It is said that the disciples who wrote the four Gospels rendered only their interpretations of what Jesus taught, rather than our Saviour’s actual words.”. But since Jesus’ words were, as far as we can determine, spoken in Aramaic and recorded in Greek by Hebrew thinkers, the “actual words” of Jesus are only infrequently quoted. For example, in the account of Jesus’ raising a girl to life (Mark 5:41), we see that Jesus actually said “Talitha cumi”, which Mark then interprets for the Greek reader. We could also cite Jesus’ words on the cross, which the onlookers mistook for “He’s calling Elijah”.

In point (1) Peterson lifts verses out of context in order to disparage “interpretation” by saying “2 Peter 1:20 and 2 Timothy 3:16 indicate that no part of God’s Word came about by man’s ’interpretation’.” The former verse, in context, clearly communicates that the prophets themselves did not make up stories but faithfully conveyed God’s messages, and the latter has no bearing on the matter of interpretation, when that word is properly understood.

In point (2) he disagrees with the view that the Gospel writers interpreted what they saw by saying “they could simply be due to...”, which is just an opinion; what each Gospel writer was emphasizing is itself a matter of “interpretation”. He argues that it must have been the Holy Spirit directing each writer to give a different perspective, and I have no problem with that. But to say that this depends upon our having a wooden word-for-word translation does not follow.

In point (3) he argues that interpretation is not the example we see in scripture, yet in addition to the scriptures already cited, we know of a very famous one where Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel which means ’God with us’”. So even Matthew could interpret the OT Hebrew name into a Greek phrase.

In sub-point (i) he engages in the fallacy of special pleading by saying that even if all his preceding arguments are invalid, this one makes up for them: though the scripture itself uses interpretation, we can’t. And I agree that the canon is closed, but this has no bearing on the issue of translation. In sub-point (ii) he labels our translations as “interpretations of interpretations”, which depends on accepting his earlier points in the first place.

If, as Peterson says, the bottom line is to have faith (a point nobody disputes), then why do we need him or anyone else to tell us how to translate the Bible? If he admits that the Spirit interprets it for us, then why the need for fallible human intermediaries, who will be unable to avoid interpreting as they go along? If all interpretation is necessarily “not scripture”, then we must not translate at all, since it is impossible to do so without interpreting.

The Intricacy of God’s Word – In this section Peterson admits that the Bible is complex and makes frequent use of figures of speech, yet says “ Much of this can be obscured if we merely interpret what we consider to be the central point of the text and don’t properly take these other elements into account.” This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to translate. If we truly take all pertinent elements into account, we will interpret; there is no avoiding this. The steps of translation include using documentary evidence to determine the semantic range of each word, the figures of speech, the habits of the individual writer, and the context of society and history to finally arrive at the meaning of a given phrase or document in modern English. There are interpretations at every step. So why is only Peterson permitted to interpret what these figures of speech mean, for example?

He then proceeds to describe the multidimensional nature of the whole of scripture, yet seems to keep missing the irony of how this debunks his arguments against interpretation. To close this section with the statement “It is absolutely critical, for instance, that prophetic material be translated word-for-word” only supports the need for interpretation, rather than dismissing it. Does he think that dynamic versions try to change, for example, a lamb into a lion, or Jesus into a mere enlightened human being? Those would be instances of altering or tampering, but none of the recognized dynamic versions do such a thing. I would challenge Mr. Peterson to provide examples from, say, the NIV which fundamentally alter such things.

No one disputes Peterson’s description of the beauty of God’s Word, but he doesn’t seem to understand that not one translation of any document in the world, and esp. the Bible, can fail to “lose something in the translation”. Unless we are fluent in the ancient languages, there is much we will never see. But again, had God deemed it necessary to preserve this beauty, he’d never have sanctioned any translation at all— and it is well known that the NT writers used the LXX (Greek translation) for their OT scriptures.

To Sum Up – Peterson describes scripture as “mind-blowingly intricate”, which is actually a devastating rebuttal to his thesis against interpretation. He also seems a bit sloppy with this word, equivocating and redefining it as needed. He admits that scripture “employs brilliant creative-writing techniques to get across extra meaning” but wants us to convey it in English with a wooden literalism! It simply isn’t possible to get all the beauty and complexity of one language into another without interpretation.

In saying “we are fooling ourselves if we think we can write a better Bible than He. Again, we need to have faith”, Peterson burns a straw man by insinuating that those who interpret are trying to one-up God. Clearly he had “interpreted” their motives and judged their hearts before the study even began, and falsely contrasts interpretation with faith, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

In some apparent afterthoughts, the “sum up” needed additional explanation, which Peterson does under NT Quotes of the OT. But he only repeats his earlier “special pleading” and seems to be unaware of the fact that while the NT writers quoted the LXX, our OT is based upon the much later (post-NT) Masoretic. This by itself accounts for the lack of equivalence, and would have been a much better tack for his case. One really should do more extensive study before teaching so confidently on a topic like this.

But he goes on to question the “love of truth” of those who “interpret”, and even accuses God of deliberately being vague so as to test people! (see the second paragraph there) He should remember that scripture tells us why God is sometimes vague, in 1 Cor. 2:8 and Mt. 13:10–19. Again, this has nothing to do with “interpretation” as Peterson defines it. He makes bold claims of the evidence for his view as being “unambiguous”, and continues to miss the irony of appealing to the Spirit while writing this long series to fill in whatever the Spirit is apparently unable to provide. No one has forgotten that this is God’s Word (emph. his); this again is a slam on those who disagree with him. He does interpret, everyone interprets, and there is no escaping this fact.

In his final section under “Is it really a problem”, Peterson continues to judge the motives of those who “interpret” as having bias he does not have, as fostering the creation of too many versions and thus causing confusion (can’t we say that about preachers and denominations and bloggers as well?), as tempting people “to abdicate their personal responsibility before God for how they interpret God’s words (emph. mine), and for undermining belief in the inspiration of scripture. These are very serious charges to make against entire groups of people he does not know, esp. since these are fellow believers. He is not arguing here against their beliefs but their motives; ergo he is playing the part of the Holy Spirit while denying this to those who ”interpret“.

To top it all off, Peterson boldly proclaims that ”translations using dynamic equivalence are fundamentally unbiblical in their own right. (And this should cause the biggest discomfort for any true believer in Jesus.)“ Wow. And even in his summary of his summary (”Conclusion“), he accuses all who ”interpret“ as only being interested in easy comprehension. Of course he means something on the order of, say, an 8th grade education, but isn’t the goal of all translation to make foreign words comprehensible? And how are ”readers to check whether or not their favoured version of the Bible uses a degree of human interpretation“ with the ”little knowledge" Peterson says it takes to base one’s judgment? By the Spirit, or by Peterson’s opinions?

Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no need to examine the rest of the series, as even the most elaborate house built on sand will wash away with the next high tide. This foundation is cracked and warped on many levels. I would instead encourage the reader to study scholarly conversations on these issues, at places such as The Better Bibles Blog and the b-Greek mailing list archives available by search engine.